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Are Electronics Being Recycled?

Dec 07 2017 Read 1966 Times

Another upgrade on your mobile phone? Included in your contract? You’d be a fool not to take advantage… but there’s just one thing. Where does the old model go? While phones themselves might actually be comparatively easy to recycle, they represent the merest tip of the iceberg.

According to the United Nations University's Global E-Waste Monitor, we’re projected to produce in excess of 50 million tonnes of e-waste globally next year, including everything from washing machines and desktop computers to jingly-jangly trinkets and flashing doohickeys. But where does it all go?

Over the seas and far away

At present, roughly 45% of all electrical goods sold in the UK are recycled, with the rest going to landfill. But where does this recycling take place? According to the most recent figures available, Ghana processes more than half of all UK e-waste, totalling almost 18,000 tonnes of the stuff in 2011.

Other likely destinations for our unwanted electronics include China, India and Nigeria, with 80% of all of our recycled e-waste being dispatched overseas – and not always legally. Indeed, the illegal e-waste trade has become so rampant that mountains of discarded phones, Fitbits and other electronic gadgetry are all but a commonplace sight in many south east Asian cities.

Changing tack

Fortunately, we do seem to be (slowly) waking up to the profligacy of our e-waste habits. Just as the growing market for continuous monitoring emissions systems (CEMS) indicates an increased awareness of air pollution in developing countries, the e-waste elephant in the room is getting more attention.

For example, China recently tweaked their laws to include circuit boards in the category of hazardous waste, which put an end to the importation of much e-waste into the country and actually bankrupted a variety of Chinese processors of the materials.

However, the benefits of law changes of these kinds are dubious at best; while China may have cleared up its act, the waste itself has simply gone to another stronghold in another part of the world. Meanwhile, those in charge of recycling it are exposed to the harmful metals inside (including arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury), while its processing increases the risk of contaminating air, water and soil.

A collective effort

As far back as 2008, international bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were being blamed for the lack of control on e-waste. While their negligence is certainly part of the problem, much of it lies within our own consume-and-discard culture.

Rather than eagerly gobbling up the next incarnation of the iPhone or Android or whatever shiny gizmo catches our eye next, it would be far kinder on Mother Earth to simply make do with our existing gadgetry for as long as possible. Recycling wherever possible goes without saying (often, this falls under the obligation of the seller of the new item, as well), while hoarding e-waste until recycling technology has caught up with itself could be one viable approach to the issue.

Stockpiling old appliances in your attic might not be the best solution, but it will save airmiles, encourage you to economise better and avoid your beloved Nokia ending up on the top of an electronic graveyard cairn, miles from home. With the UK hoping to recycle 85% of e-waste by 2020, an upturn in options could be right around the corner, too.

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